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Cryptically Unhelpful Answer

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Percy Jackson: How do we break those chains?
Thanatos: Only the fire of life can melt the chains of death.
Percy: Without the riddles, please?
The Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune

Whenever the heroes, and by extension the audience, have a question, it's generally good form for it to be answered at some point, lest the audience get pissed and demand their money back. These questions can vary in importance, but when it comes to the Cryptically Unhelpful Answer, they sometimes have one thing in common: The answers are cryptic. As well as unhelpful.

Sometimes "answers" don't really answer your question. Sometimes they leave the heroes and the audience even more confused than they were before. It's intentional on the part of the author, but not intentional on the part of whoever's doing the answering.

Contrast the Cryptic Conversation, where the Eccentric Mentor purposely makes the answer cryptic and unhelpful. Often overlaps with the Mathematician's Answer, where the answer is technically correct, but not helpful in the slightest. Compare Ice-Cream Koan.

Compare with Non-Answer, and Voodoo Shark.


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     Anime and Manga  
  • Dragon Ball Super: Whenever Goku Black and Future Zamasu are asked about the kind of universe they envision which requires the utter extinction of all mortal life, they simply reply that it is not something a mortal could comprehend, their word choice only cementing their God Complex.
  • In the anime of Ouran Highschool Host Club: Haruhi's confusion as to where a grand piano seemingly appeared out of nowhere is brushed aside like this.
    Haruhi: When did that grand piano get there?
    Kyoya: Well, it is a music room.

     Fan Works 
  • Between Minds has the Half-Life vortigaunts and Portal's oracle turret exactly as enigmatic as they were in the games.
  • Child of the Storm has Doctor Strange make a hobby out of answers like this - mostly for his own amusement.
  • In Peter Parker's Field Trip (Of course it's to Stark Industries), when Flash confronts him, wanting to know how Peter got an internship at Stark Tower when they don't even let high-schoolers apply, Peter is forced to give a vague answer about Tony happening upon a video of him, making sure to leave out all mention of Spider-Man.

     Film - Animated  
     Film - Live Action  
  • In Star Trek: First Contact Data is introduced to the Borg Queen and he asks if she is the individual controlling all the Borg. Her answer- "I bring order to chaos"- doesn't entirely satisfy Data's curiosity, and he calls it "an interesting, if cryptic, response".
  • The Matrix and its sequels are notorious for this, especially during Neo's conversations with The Oracle. Although this is likely intentional, in order to give the viewer the choice between multiple interpretations.
  • Happens in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End when Jack is studying Sao Feng's navigational charts. Even lampshaded.
    Jack: "Up is down"? Well, that's maddeningly unhelpful. Why are these things never clear?
  • The Mystery Man from Lost Highway gives several examples of this trope. He IS the Mystery Man, after all.
    Fred: How'd you get inside my house?!
    Mystery Man: You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I'm not wanted.
  • The Sphinx from Mystery Men gives these out if the form of a vague Ice-Cream Koan. Justified in that one of his powers is that he's terribly mysterious.
  • Played for Drama in Prisoners, when a mentally ill man who appears to be involved in the kidnapping of two girls can only give unhelpfully cryptic responses; he has No Social Skills to the extreme and has difficulty conveying even the simplest of things. He actually tells Keller the real identity of the Big Bad and where the girls are early on, but the strange way he phrased it caused Keller to think he was the kidnapper.

  • There's a popular joke about a helicopter crew getting lost after their radio goes out, so they fly to a nearby skyscraper and hold up a sign that says "Where am I?" The people in the skyscraper hold up a sign saying "You are in a helicopter" which somehow quickly helps the pilot get back to the airport. When asked how that cryptic answer helped, he responds that he must have been near (whatever tech agency the individual variant of the joke names) because "they gave me an answer that was technically correct but completely unhelpful".

  • Warden from The Bone Season is accomplished at these. When Paige asks him why pollen of the poppy anemone had such a horrible effect on the Rephaite Kraz Sargas, his reply is puzzling at best.
    Warden: We are not what we seem, Paige. How long was there between the application of the pollen and the shooting?
    Paige: Maybe ten seconds.
    Warden: What did you see in those ten seconds?
    Paige: It was like his face was rotting. And his eyes were white, like they'd lost all their colour. Dead eyes.
    Warden: There you have it.
  • In Cold Days, Harry asks the Fae Summer Mother if she's talking about him, prompting her to reply, "We are. And we are not." This only confuses him further.
  • In David Edding's Belgariad and Malloreon these are abundant, leading to various characters (mostly Beldin and Belgarath) remarking how they hate riddles. When asked of one character why this is the only answer she gives, she tells them that it makes people think more about her words. Plus she knows it irritates people.
  • Found in the epilogue of The Orphan's Tales. The Girl has wondered her entire lonely life about the mysterious woman who gave her a knife and told her to tell stories. When the Girl meets her again, she asks her why the woman left her alone for so long? The closest Aerie gets to answering is "The world is wide, and the raising of children is a delicate matter." Helpful stuff.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Both Lampshaded and Justified: Frodo frustratedly Lampshades this when asking advice from an elf named Gildor, who merely responds that Frodo can choose one of two options (of which Frodo was already well aware). "It is also said: go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes." Gildor finds this amusing, but clarifies that he isn't really sure what Frodo should do either, and doesn't want to give advice that might possibly lead to a poor decision.
  • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, while exploring the Forbidden Forest looking for whatever creature is killing the unicorns, Hagrid asks the centaurs if they have seen something. They just answer how planet Mars seems to be particularly bright that night, which of course doesn't help Hagrid one bit to solve the problem at hand.

     Live-Action TV 
  • H₂O: Just Add Water: Ms. Chatham is fond of these kind of answers, usually showing up out of nowhere, giving the girls warnings that would be helpful if she was straightforward about her knowledge of mermaids, and disappearing just as suddenly. When the main characters finally know that she is/was a mermaid herself, Lewis sardonically asks if her next piece of advice is to mild-meld with jellyfish.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Worf refuses to explain why 23rd-century Klingons don't look like their 24th-century counterparts, saying only, "We do not discuss it with outsiders!" It wasn't until Season 2 of Enterprise that we got a canon explanation (which happened to be a combination of all the WMG the characters engaged in during this exact scene).
  • The X-Files: This is the job of every one of Mulder's Mysterious Informants. Mulder would snap at them from time to time when their vagueness would get unbearable.
  • Ambassador Kosh of Babylon 5 has dialogue consisting of almost nothing but this trope. It's even lampshaded in the series.
    Sheridan: (sighs) Well, as answers go, short, to the point, utterly useless, and totally consistent with what I've come to expect from a Vorlon.
    Kosh: Good.
    • He's far from the only one, although the ambassadors usually only resort to this when they need to rather than as a habit.
    Ta'Lon: That was a stirring reply, Citizen G'Kar. Unfortunately, while all answers are replies, not all replies are answers.
  • Lampshaded by Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG-1, when conversing with Oma Desala, who generally speaks in koans:
    Oma: If you're seeking truth that applies to all, you will not find it. Only truth that applies to you.
    Daniel: That is so amazingly unhelpful...
    • In at least one case there's a good reason for it: "Oma" is actually Repli-Carter trying to pick Daniel's brain. She doesn't understand any of the stuff herself, and she's really looking for Daniel to provide her an explanation.
  • One episode of Star Trek: Voyager has a visiting investigator using an unfamiliar device to help the crew discover the identity of an alien that seriously injured Tuvok. The investigator is more than a little excited when his scanner indicates something of significance.
    Janeway: What is it?
    Investigator: The sound of history being made.
    Janeway: Less poetry, Mr. Naroq, more facts.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Q does these excessively in order to troll Picard. A particularly shameless example was in the series finale, when he agreed to help Picard find a way out of his predicament by unhelpfully answering a series of yes or no questions. Turned around slightly in that, this being a battle of wits, Picard does manage to ask a few unexpected ones and glean some useful facts out of it.
  • Messiah: Al-Masih's answers to most direct questions (like whether he's the messiah) really could be interpreted multiple ways, aside from when they're just evaded.

  • In "Weird Al" Yankovic's song "Your Horoscope For Today", one of the horoscopes given is the exceedingly unhelpful:
    ''The stars predict tomorrow you'll wake up, do a bunch of stuff, and then go back to sleep."

     Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • The spell Augury tells the user whether committing some act would be a good idea or not. The Dungeon Master is advised to only give a vague and general answer to the caster's question.
    • The spell Legend Lore provides information about a specified person, place or thing, but the data must be in some cryptic form (an anagram, cipher, code, rhyme, riddle, etc.).

     Video Games 
  • The Reapers of Mass Effect are notoriously cryptic and uninformative of their true purpose, right up until the very end when you meet the Catalyst. If you press Sovereign, the only Reaper you encounter in the first game, all it does is boast that “We impose order on chaos” and that “It is not something you can comprehend.” Harbinger in the second game, only taunts you during the main game, and during the Arrival DLC only waxes about “inevitability”. The Reaper you encounter on Rannoch in the third game, only states that “We are your salvation”. If pressed further, all it states is that “It is not something you can comprehend.”
  • Star Trek Judgment Rites ends with a Brassican philosophical test, where Kirk and the other team members are asked to provide a single answer to a very vague question. Kirk has the option to ask for clarification, to which some of the Brassica object on the grounds that this would be cheating. When Kirk argues that cultural differences between the humans and the Brassica make the test unfair, the Brassica relent - but the "hints" they give are just as confusing as the questions, if not more!

  • In Koan of the Day, the guru makes a habit of this.
  • A common theme in Gunnerkrigg Court anytime someone asks Coyote a question. He is, afterall, a Trickster God. Even lampshaded here.
    Antimony: Coyote, can you tell me, what is Gunnerkrigg Court?
    Coyote: Why... It is man's endeavour to become God!
    Coyote: How is that for an enigmatic answer?
    Ysengrin: Very enigmatic. It barely answers anything at all.
    Antimony: In fact, it raises more questions than before.

     Western Animation 
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Zecora's insistence on rhyming when she speaks means that her speech is usually very convoluted and hard to understand. In her introductory episode, she tells the protagonists "Beware, beware, you pony folk; those leaves of blue are not a joke!" Somewhat more helpful would have been if she'd said "Don't go near the blue flowers, they're dangerous." But then we couldn't have had a full episode ending with learning not to judge by appearances.
  • Dungeons & Dragons (1983): The Dungeon Master constantly provided support to his chosen heroes on how to survive the episode's central situation... in the form of riddles. It was not unusual for them to snark about it.
    Eric The Cavalier: Oh, great, the Dungeon Master gave us a riddle again! And in other news, the sky is blue!

     Real Life 
  • Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was famously asked the definition of pornography and said "I know it when I see it". Well that's about as clear as mud.
    • In legal terms, Supreme Court plurality opinions (I.E. where less than five justices back a single rational for the ruling) are Cryptically Unhelpful Answers. While the justices have come to some ruling regarding the current case, future cases with similar fact patterns will have to choose which of the court's opinions to follow, or try to craft a decision so it follows the court's multiple rationals at the same time. The rare 4-4 decisions (which are only possible when one of the nine justices doesn't participate, either because of some conflict of interest or because there's a vacant spot where an old justice is gone and a new one has yet to be confirmed) are even worse, as the case defaults to the lower court's ruling without setting any precedent, leaving the courts without any real guidance on how to rule on similar problems in the future.


Video Example(s):


Ms. Chatham

Ms. Chatham gives Cleo some very unspecific advice on what to expect from the full moon. Cleo takes the warning seriously, but repeating the warning doesn't make Rikki or Emma particularly concerned.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / CrypticConversation

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